Reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Feeling anxious? Anxiety disorders are extremely common — in fact, diagnostic interview data from the National Comorbidity Study Replication suggests that an estimated 31 percent of US adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in life.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a clinical anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), or if you just feel as if you’re naturally prone to anxiety, you may have wondered if the foods you eat could play a role in your symptoms.
Currently, there’s no evidence to suggest that eating certain foods could cause you to develop an anxiety disorder if you have no history of mental health issues.
However, there are certain foods, nutrients and ingredients that have been linked with anxiety symptoms, including feelings of restlessness, an elevated heart rate and difficulties related to falling asleep or relaxing.
Below, we’ve explained the potential link between your diet and your risk of feeling anxious or worried during the day.
We’ve also listed four foods and ingredients that you’ll want to avoid if you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or develop feelings of anxiety easily.
Finally, we’ve discussed the best options for treating anxiety, from therapy and medications to changes that you can make to your diet and daily habits for a healthy, anxiety-free life.
When we talk about anxiety, it’s important to make a distinction between the normal feelings of anxiety we all experience from time to time and clinical anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is a normal, common reaction to stress. If you feel stressed because of a family issue, your job or a relationship problem, it’s perfectly normal to have the feelings of fear and unease that we all associate with anxiety.
These feelings generally have a clear, obvious cause, and they usually become less severe as the event that triggered the anxiety fades away into the background of your life.
Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are mental health disorders that generally involve severe, persistent symptoms of anxiety that can happen for a range of reasons and often don’t improve with time.
Many people with anxiety disorders have symptoms so severe that they interfere with things like going to class, performing well at work or maintaining relationships.
Unlike the common situational anxiety many people experience in response to stressful events, which has a clear cause, experts aren’t aware of precisely what causes anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, to develop.
Currently, most research suggests that a mix of genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of these conditions, with childhood shyness and exposure to traumatic events potential risk factors.
At the moment, there isn’t any high-quality scientific evidence to suggest that your eating habits and general diet play any role in the development of clinical anxiety disorders.
Put simply, the current science doesn’t suggest that you could develop an anxiety disorder from eating too much of a certain food, even if it may be unhealthy.
However, certain foods and ingredients are associated with an increased risk of developing the symptoms of stress and anxiety. These foods might make you feel more anxious than usual, or play a role in triggering your symptoms if you have an existing anxiety disorder.
If you have an anxiety disorder, or if you’re prone to feelings of anxiety, avoiding these foods — or at least limiting your consumption — may help to reduce your risk of experiencing symptoms and improve your quality of life.
So, which foods should you avoid if you’re prone to anxiety? Luckily, the list of foods that cause anxiety is fairly short, meaning you typically won’t need to make any significant changes to your diet if you think certain foods could be triggering your anxiety symptoms.
Although technically not a food itself, one substance that’s closely associated with anxiety is caffeine.
Caffeine is a stimulant that’s found in several common foods and drinks. It works by stimulating your central nervous system, causing you to feel more energetic and increasing your overall level of alertness.
This increase in alertness and energy is why so many people depend on a morning coffee — or two, or three — to make it through a busy workday.
Caffeine generally isn’t a harmful or anxiety-inducing substance when it’s consumed in small to moderate doses, such as the 95 to 200 milligrams found in an eight-ounce cup of coffee or the 35 to 45 milligrams found in your average can of cola or diet soda.
However, consuming a significant amount of caffeine may increase your risk of developing symptoms of anxiety, including physical symptoms such as a fast heart rate, restlessness, and difficulty relaxing or falling asleep.
Part of this may be due to caffeine’s effects on your levels of cortisol — a hormone that plays a major role in regulating your body’s stress response.
Research shows that caffeine elevates cortisol levels. This increase in stress hormone levels might contribute to higher actual stress levels, causing you to feel anxious.
Most people can consume up to 400mg of caffeine per day. However, you may want to reduce your caffeine intake if you feel anxious or experience noticeable issues (like panic attacks) after drinking lots of coffee, cola or energy drinks.
It’s also a good idea to limit your caffeine intake if you have difficulty sleeping, as the insomnia caused by too much caffeine may also contribute to elevated anxiety levels.
In addition to coffee, soda and energy drinks, other dietary sources of caffeine include several common types of tea, kola nuts and dark chocolate.
As relaxing as it might feel to end the day with a glass of wine or your favorite cocktail, alcohol has a tendency to make anxiety worse rather than better when it’s consumed in excess or on a frequent basis.
Research shows that alcohol use disorders (AUDs) and anxiety tend to co-occur, meaning they often occur at the same time. In fact, research suggests that up to 50 percent of all people who seek treatment for problematic alcohol use also have one or more anxiety disorders.
Not only can alcohol contribute to anxiety when it’s consumed in excess, but drinking too much can also leave you feeling hungover, which might cause a depressed mood or make feelings of stress or worry worse.
If you have an alcohol use disorder and anxiety, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about getting help.
However, if you don’t have an alcohol use disorder but find that you’re more anxious when you drink, you might benefit from either cutting out alcohol from your life temporarily or limiting your alcohol intake to a more moderate amount to see if your mood improves.
According to the CDC, this means consuming no more than one drink per day (defined as one 12-ounce glass of beer, five-ounce glass of wine or 1.5-ounce shot of spirits) for women, or two drinks per day for men.
Candy, chocolate, sugary drinks and other sweet foods taste great, especially when you’re in a stressful situation and need something satisfying to fill your stomach.
However, foods rich in refined sugars can cause your blood sugar levels to spike upwards and crash back down — a phenomenon that can feel like anxiety.
Research suggests that a diet that’s rich in high glycemic index (GI) foods, such as candy and drinks that contain multiple teaspoons of sugar, might play a role in the development of anxiety and depression symptoms. However, it’s not yet clear if this link is causal.
While it’s okay to indulge in candy, chocolate and sugary drinks every now and then, reducing your consumption of these foods is a good idea if you’re prone to anxiety.
It’s also better for your general health, as sugary treats — as well as foods that contain hidden sugars such as flavored yogurt, fruit juices and fruit-based sauces — can increase your risk of obesity and diabetes.
Instead of making these foods the main features of your diet, try to maintain a healthy diet rich in fresh fruits, leafy greens and lean protein sources.
Refined carbohydrates are sugars and grains that have been processed to remove the bran, fiber and other nutrients. Popular refined carbs include white bread and flour, white rice, as well as many common breakfast cereals.
Like simple sugars, excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates is associated with weight gain and metabolic health issues. There’s also some scientific research to suggest that refined carbs may play a role in the development of anxiety symptoms.
For example, one study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that consumption of refined grains was associated with depression and anxiety in women, while consumption of whole grain foods was linked to a lower risk of anxiety symptoms.
However, like with many other foods, more research is needed to establish a strong, causative link between refined grains and anxiety.
Anxiety is a treatable issue. In addition to avoiding or limiting foods and ingredients that cause you to feel anxious, you can often treat anxiety disorders with therapy, medication and simple but effective changes to your daily life.
If you think you have an anxiety disorder, it’s important to talk to a mental health provider. You can access help by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, or by using our online mental health services to talk to a healthcare provider from your home.
Most types of anxiety improve with psychotherapy, or talk therapy. Your mental health provider might suggest taking part in therapy on a regular basis to learn new strategies for dealing with people, environments or events that make you feel anxious.
We offer online therapy, allowing you to connect with a licensed counselor for private help from the comfort and convenience of your home.
Many anxiety disorders can be treated using medication. Your mental health provider may give you a type of medication called an antidepressant to control your symptoms and help you limit feelings of anxiety or panic.
Antidepressants often take several weeks to start working effectively as treatments for anxiety, meaning you’ll need to take your medication consistently to make progress. It may take time for you and your healthcare provider to find the right medication for your needs.
We offer medications for anxiety and depression via our online psychiatry service, following a consultation with a licensed provider who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.
While caffeine, alcohol and simple sugars can increase your risk of developing anxiety, other foods may help to reduce anxiety-related behaviors and make your symptoms easier to deal with on a daily basis.
According to Harvard Medical School, foods rich in magnesium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins, including legumes, spinach, Swiss chard, seeds, nuts, oysters, liver, egg yolks and fatty fish, have been associated with reductions in anxiety symptoms.
Other foods linked to improvements in anxiety include probiotic foods, such as sauerkraut and pickles.
It’s important to keep in mind that some research findings related to foods that may reduce the severity of anxiety come from studies of animals, meaning they may not have exactly the same effect in people with anxiety disorders.
However, many of these foods are rich in healthy nutrients anyway, making them worth adding to your diet for general health and well-being.
In addition to therapy, medication and healthy eating, making small changes to your habits and daily life can help to make anxiety easier to manage. Try to:
Use relaxation techniques to handle stress when it develops.
Practice mindfulness on a regular basis to calm your mind.
Get regular exercise, even if it’s just a walk around your neighborhood.
Take part in a local support group, or join an online support group.
Our guide to calming anxiety goes into more detail about techniques that you can use to relax, unwind and deal with the feelings of anxiety you experience on a day-to-day basis.
Most foods don’t cause or worsen anxiety. However, there is evidence that caffeine, alcohol and simple sugars, which are found in candy and other sweet foods, may contribute to some anxiety symptoms.
If you have an anxiety disorder, or if you seem prone to anxiety and believe your dietary choices might play a role in your symptoms, limiting the foods and substances above could help to make dealing with your anxiety easier.
However, a healthy diet should be viewed as a complement to other treatments for anxiety, such as therapy and medication, not necessarily as a replacement.
If you’re concerned that you might have anxiety, you can access help by taking part in an online mental health consultation using our telehealth platform.
You can also learn more about medical and natural treatments for anxiety in our complete guide to anxiety disorder treatments.
Dr. Jill Johnson is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner and board-certified in Aesthetic Medicine. She has clinical and leadership experience in emergency services, Family Practice, and Aesthetics.
Jill graduated with honors from Frontier Nursing University School of Midwifery and Family Practice, where she received a Master of Science in Nursing with a specialty in Family Nursing. She completed her doctoral degree at Case Western Reserve University.
Jill is a national speaker on various topics involving critical care, emergency and air medical topics. She has authored and reviewed for numerous publications. You can find Jill on Linkedin for more information.
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